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No high-minded debate in Kennedy-Markey Senate race

Instead of debating the serious issues facing the nation, they quibbled over votes and who spends more time in Massachusetts.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Senator Ed Markey debate on Sunday.NBC10 Boston

For this, I left the beach early?

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide protests over racial justice and the role of police, the latest debate between Senator Edward J. Markey and his challenger, Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, boiled down to deconstructing a vote from seven years ago and discussing who spends more time sleeping in Massachusetts.

In-between, names were dropped. In case you forgot, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has endorsed Markey, along with a slew of mayors. To Kennedy, endorsements don’t matter — except the one he got in January from Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon from Georgia who died earlier this month.


With about a month to go before the Sept. 1 primary, what matters to voters? What are they thinking? I know I’m thinking about the fall and winter and how depressing it will be if we are back in lockdown due to a rise of COVID-19 cases. I’m thinking of all the people without jobs, and those who may yet lose them. I’m thinking about parents who don’t know what to do about sending their children to school. I can’t stop thinking about a president who, every day, tears this country further apart; and how much I hope that someday soon, there will be grown-ups in Washington who will find a way to address inequities and remind us of our common goals.

I’m also thinking how I would like to hear a would-be senator from Massachusetts address those hopes and fears. But in this primary fight, that’s not to be. Now, it’s all about how much time Markey spends in Massachusetts — not what either will do in Washington about racial tension or the environment.

Once, there were seismic debates over serious issues — in 1994 when Republican Mitt Romney challenged Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and in 1996, when Republican Bill Weld took on Senator John F. Kerry. It didn’t happen Sunday night for a simple reason. There are no major policy differences. Both Markey and Kennedy want to “re-imagine” the police. And amazingly, neither one has any desire to speak ill of Republican Governor Charlie Baker, whose Teflon is the envy of politicians everywhere.


But there are votes to quibble over.

For example, Kennedy blasted Markey over a vote he took in 2013 to support a so-called bed quota for immigrants. The measure called for the federal government to fill a minimum of 34,000 detention beds with people caught by ICE. At the time, Markey was still in the House, but running for Senate in a special election; his vote was definitely not a progressive high-water mark. Yet Kennedy ultimately voted for similar bed quota language in a broader spending bill. If the principle were so important to Kennedy, he could have voted no and explained why.

But back in 2013, Kennedy wasn’t exactly an uncompromising crusader for civil rights. In the interest of sharing bipartisan sweat, he exercised with Representative Kevin McCarthy, now the House minority leader, and said he understood that Tea Party Republicans “are doing what their districts sent them to do.” Sometimes, he even voted differently than the rest of the Massachusetts delegation — like when he was the only one to oppose legislation that curtailed the government’s ability to snoop on citizens. But the decision to take on Markey has radicalized him. For example, right before he got into the race, he disaffiliated from his college fraternity, Kappa Alpha, over the national organization’s “racist record” and fealty to its “spiritual founder,” Robert E. Lee.


Better late than never, but the timing does seem convenient.

Kennedy is also working hard to paint Markey as an out-of-touch senator. In their zeal to make that case, the Kennedy campaign put out a press release bemoaning Markey’s failure to acknowledge the towns of Dana, Enfield, and Prescott. However, those three towns no longer exist, because they were swallowed up by the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. Meanwhile, The Globe is reporting that Markey does spend less time in Massachusetts than the rest of the delegation.

What matters more — where either one rests his head at night or what they will do to end our long national nightmare? Something to ponder during the dog days of summer, amid a pandemic.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.